Last Wednesday evening I was in the audience at two events in London. The first one was an IHR seminar where Jane Kershaw was talking on Viking brooches found in England (which I may blog about later, if I get organised). The second was a women’s poetry session called Loose Muse, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. As well as having to remember in which event to clap, and in which one to make notes for future reference, this also got me thinking about the different kinds of relationship possible between the writer/performer and the audience (especially since both events included time for questions and answers).
What I was most struck about was the greater intimacy and personal revelation of the poetry reading. An academic seminar in history, or even a journal article, will often ‘leak’ at least some of the author’s personality and wider political/social views, even if they don’t intend it to. But in many of the poems and discussions of them I heard that night, self-revelation was part of the point: I learnt about the physical and mental health, the personal circumstances and worries of people I’d never met before. One obvious answer is to put this down to a contrast of genres, but that’s hard to reconcile with the third data point of that evening, the book I was carrying round with me in my bag. Another piece of ‘performance poetry’ : Beowulf. Poetry doesn’t have to be intimate one of the problems in dating Beowulf is how few clues we get about the author, and his (probably) times.
So what is the reason for the rise of intimate poetry, revelatory poetry if there has been a rise? It’s tempting at this point to start bringing gender into it. Are women more prone to self-revelation? But an IHR seminar doesn’t, to me, seem ‘male’ rather than ‘female’, especially when there’s a female speaker and women playing a prominent role in the discussion afterwards (I did have the shuddering thought of one of the more formidable historians of my acquaintance, such as Susan Reynolds, at a poetry Q and A, asking: “But what do you mean by your use of ‘Charon’ in your last line?”). And one of the poems read, at least, seemed closer to the Beowulf model, a description of a merman walking on land for the first time.
I think there has been a historical change in poetry, but it’s hard to pin down. There is a very long tradition of ‘confessional’ poetry, personal poetry (back to Ovid and before), and the persona created is always artificial to some extent: the ‘I’ is always a character. But I think, nowadays, there is more emphasis on the truth of poetry, on it being about something that really happened, and happened to the person telling it. One writer, whose son was serving as a soldier in Afghanistan, felt it necessary to say that an event she described had happened, not to her, but to other mothers. Perhaps what has changed is not simply the willingness of poets to expose themselves, but the demand of audiences that they do so.
From my very limited knowledge of the history of poetry, I would connect this to the Romantics (and thus also demonstrate that it’s not simply a gendered phenomenon). Wouldn’t it somehow negate some of the impact of John Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer if you knew that he’d never actually read that work? Similarly, Wordsworth’s claim that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ makes authenticity into the key. Such authenticity doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed via intimate details of the poet’s life it can be displaced onto clearly fictional characters – but it did perhaps give self-revelatory poems a significance that they didn’t have before. But I’m conscious once again of how little I know about what it’s like to experience hearing poetry (this was the first event intended for adults I can remember going to). I’d be interested to hear more from those who know more about the history of poetry and its current state.